Shooting the streets of Istanbul: some ideas

“A city does not mean a couple of windows and a door frame. A city means a place where people love to live, where people get a certain flavor out of living. Those are the places I love to photograph.” Ara Güler

As a photographer of cities, Istanbul has everything I could ever want. I am completely and totally in awe of this place. The incredible light, the complex history, beautiful buildings, the seas, the people, the culture, street sellers… it’s packed with incredibleness (a technical term).

In this post I wanted to pick one theme of what I like to shoot in Istanbul – with the hope that if you make your way over here it will give you some ideas on how to get a handle on this intense and bustling city. The two easiest things to photograph in Istanbul are the monumentally beautiful vistas and the people. Because Istanbul is laid out over seven (very steep) hills it’s easy to capture epic views over the city. And the people here are stunningly friendly and warm, so ditto very easy to photograph. But I will pick up those two themes later in another post.


 What I want to do with this post is go a little off the beaten track. I want to bring together some of my photos of the streets of Istanbul. Some of the details, the scenes that I saw that are away from the epic and grand and impressive. My aim here is for more of the every day. I want to find some of the flavour of the city, the city that people live in and give you some ideas on how to photograph those parts. Most of these shots are from my dawn wanderings, but a few are from later in the day.


There is so much to shoot here. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of the potential, and to go at shooting like a rabid bunny. Don’t shoot like that. I guarantee, my friend, if you are shooting too much, then you won’t be able to truly get into the vibe of the city – slow down and pace yourself. Shooting a city, especially this city, is not the same as feeling a city. Work with all of your senses: really look at it, smell it, listen, and look again.

It’s good to remember that interesting light can make most subjects look interesting. Boring light can make even the most compelling subject look dull and flat. A semi-interesting wall brought to life by the light and shadows:


But it doesn’t have to be intense light. Here we have some much much softer light and it works to beautifully enhance the building, just look at all of those textures!


For me the things that I am aiming for in my photos is clarity and simplicity. I am always looking to remove things from my photo, break down the elements even further so that I can create something appealing to the eye.

Now that’s my aesthetic. I am sometimes a bit too austere – we should always be pushing ourselves and developing our style – but the concept of simplicity is very useful in a place like Istanbul where the city is just so packed with complex backgrounds and interesting things to photograph.

Look for elements that interest you and build your photo from there.

The photo below was shot in Tarlabasi, where I stayed for a few weeks earlier this year. It’s a very run down area, lots of poverty and considered quite rough. It’s worth wandering through though, particularly on a Sunday when there is a great market (This is a great blog post about the market and area). The area is a mass of historical buildings and is undergoing huge, controversial redevelopment. Lots of people are battling to keep their homes, so it’s going to be changing dramatically soon.


In many neighbourhoods that I visited, next to a new building there could be one that is abandoned, windowless and rotting. That could sound depressing, but it actually makes the city feel very ancient and in constant flux.

When you want to capture depth: think in layers. The camera can’t distinguish depth in an image, like the human eye can, and if there are too many things going on within the image it will look flat and messy. A good way to think of it is in layers. Each layer should be distinct from the previous layer, and therefore allows the eye to mentally build up the depth. This photo below has several distinct layers, but it feels very simple doesn’t it? At the front it’s the green, then the building, then more green, then the clouds and finally a wash of blue sky.


The elements that make the photo below work are the mixture of natural and artificial lighting; the contrasting colours and shapes of the buildings. Between the green building and the ones behind it there is a subtle layer created by the tungsten lights of the shops. It’s not a great feature of the shot, it’s just something that adds another layer and a feeling of depth so that it doesn’t all blend into each other. And of course the last element is that it’s bathed in the soft blue light of early morning.


 The photo below has more layers. First I’d like to say that if the photo didn’t have the man on the balcony it wouldn’t have the great sense of scale that it has. The buildings would look quite flat.  The man is almost the first layer, then you have the buildings, then the sea, the boat and the far shore. A mixture of people and landscape/buildings are really effective if used simply and purposefully to create depth.


I wasn’t sure about this photo below but my wife loved it. Much of the city is filled with tall buildings and apartment blocks where the dawn light only barely enters, and so there is not much dramatic morning light (which I love photographing). But this photo has a suggestion of it, as well as some artificial light which adds really nicely to the photo.


Here is another shot that could have been too busy and therefore looked flat (isn’t it funny that when a scene becomes too busy it looks flat rather than chaotic). The three significant elements I focused on were the mural on the broken building (amazing!), the man’s head below (great expression!) and the contrast of the modern and colourful buildings behind.


Istanbul is great for contrasts, and it’s worth looking for contrasting details when you are wandering around. Again – both of these photos below focusing on artificial lights’ are about simplicity in the face of busyness.


Remember to strip out the elements that aren’t enhancing your photo.

In this photo the area around the street vendor was busy, but for me the crowds were too distracting, so I waited until there was a lull before taking this shot.


A few more things:

  • Where to shoot: I will put together a list of my favourite spots but in the meantime I really like this. It’s recommendations from seven famous photographers from Istanbul and where they like to shoot in the city.
  • Ara Güler: I’ve mentioned Istanbul’s most famous photographer before (his book of black and white photos of old Istanbul is great), but I just bought a lesser known book of his colour work of the city called Vanished Colours, which is amazing. These photos remind me a lot of Ernst Haas’s feel for colour. Beautiful book. You can check out Ara Güler’s site for his work. He also owns a cafe, Kafe Ara, here in Istanbul, and I hear he’s often there hanging out. Generally I prefer colour photography because it’s more real, there is more feeling to me and it’s actually harder to capture something interesting.
  • Yildiz Moran: I was also happy to come across Yildiz Moran, an underrated but interesting photographer, one of the first famous female Turkish photographers.
  • Rule of Thirds: I just wrote a post for Digital Photography School on the Rule of Thirds – which you might like to check out. It was great fun to write, I love that rule! And it has over 4,000 shares already 🙂

I’d love to know what you think of this week’s post – what do you love to photograph in Istanbul? Comment  here or drop me an email – I love hearing from you.

Happy photographing!

Anthony & Diana